a sea specimen lies on the table

What happens to decades of deep-sea specimens when a scientist retires? They might not end up in the trash–anymore.

Not everyone can go to Antarctica. But H. William Detrich has been there more times than he can count.

“I think more trips than I have fingers and toes—and I have all of them,” says the Northeastern professor of marine and environmental sciences.

Detrich has returned from each trip with specimens and tissue samples from many previously unstudied fish that are uniquely adapted to live in the dark, frigid waters around Antarctica. Some fish, he found, even have antifreeze in their veins. And Detrich brought their DNA back to his laboratory to further probe biology’s capacity to adapt to extreme environments.

Detrich has amassed quite a collection of tissue samples and icefish DNA over the course of more than 30 years. Those vast collections that scientists build over their careers are often the backbone of paradigm-shifting discoveries. Scientists like Detrich can return to the collection again and again to make new discoveries and compare samples of new species with ones they’ve previously studied. But what happens to all of that scientific material when a researcher retires?

The options are limited. For some, a protégée might inherit some or all of the collection. Or a select few specimens may be of interest to museums or colleagues. But collections require space and maintenance to be preserved properly, and without active research funding or attention, they might be discarded by an institution to make space for something new.

“There are a lot of scientists all over the world who build these fantastic collections over the course of a career and don’t really think about what’s going to happen to them after they retire,” says Dan Distel, a research professor at Northeastern’s Marine Science Center in Nahant, Massachusetts. “And usually they don’t think of it until it’s kind of too late, and many of them end up in the dumpster, which is a terrible shame.”

Research missions to remote places like Antarctica or the deep sea can cost millions of dollars in grant funding to pay for the ship, submarine, or other sophisticated tools needed to access those environments, Distel says. Furthermore, the vast majority of the ocean has yet to be explored, so every collection offers a significant body of knowledge to our understanding of the diversity of marine biology—and most samples can be studied over and over to glean more information.

Distel and his team decided to make it easier for retiring marine scientists by providing them with a home for their collections where the samples can continue to be mined for new insights. And so began a new project: the Genome Resource Rescue Project at the Ocean Genome Legacy Center, a nonprofit marine DNA genome bank at the Marine Science Center.

The Ocean Genome Legacy Center acquires DNA and tissue samples to preserve (usually in a special freezer) and share through an open-access collection. So far, the center has amassed more than 29,000 DNA samples that represent over 3,000 identified species of sea life, and researchers from around the world can access that collection for their own studies.

Preserving researchers’ hard-earned collections isn’t just about keeping the biological material itself protected. It also means reconstructing the context of each specimen from researchers’ notes and other records—the metadata. Without that context, Distel says, the specimens have much less value.

There’s a lot to sort through to make sense of all of that data, however. And that takes an experienced curator, Detrich says. Part of his collection is being integrated into the Ocean Genome Legacy Center’s DNA bank.

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Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University.

Marine and Environmental Sciences
Marine Science Center